Sensorium

A Quest to Understand Extraordinary Experiences of Sense

Hearing Sunshine

Michael Winslow's talent for sound comes from synesthesia

Michael Winslow
Michael Winslow in Police Academy
Courtesy Michael Winslow
You'll remember him best for his role as Sgt. Larvelle "Motor Mouth" Jones in the Police Academy movies and the amazing sound effects he created for it. Michael Winslow is still going strong. I saw him delight audiences in a recent star turn Off-Broadway in Vocapeople in which he did a cameo.

There, Winslow did a spot-on Jimi Hendrix imitation—and not of his fellow Washington State native's voice but of his guitar. Hendrix was also a synesthete and "Purple Haze," was a literal impression of his. Winslow can also imitate Led Zeppelin guitar riffs, sirens blaring, dogs barking and any other naturally-occurring or synthetic sound.

But did you know he can also tell you what the sun sounds like when it rises in the morning? He did it for me today over the phone from London. Had we been in the savannah, the roar would have sent lions running. If the enormous, gaseous, burning star has a sound, it would probably be that fierce. He seems to have a synesthetic response to light and color and forms—for him they all have sounds.

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Michael Winslow
Michael Winslow has been called "The Man of 10,000 Sound Effects."
Courtesy Michael Winslow
"Bright, clear light is the loudest. It's a roar. Soft light doesn't scream to me that way," he said between tour dates in the UK. And colors all have sounds. To look out onto the world with its many hues is "like hearing an orchestra play," the son of an heroic Tuskegee Airman, the late Robert Winslow, says. His Mom, Verdie, a great encouragement to him, whom he refers to as a "queen," survives.

Though he noticed that not everyone around him could hear his "inner sounds" as a child, he seldom spoke of it, like many synesthetes, preferring to keep the impressions to himself. He is certain his special synesthetic hearing led to his fascination with sound and the career he has today, he says.

His synesthesia seems to be strongest after long flights—something this hard-working performer experiences a lot as he is on tour around the world most of the year with brief stays home in Florida. "You can't block it out after a flight; maybe it's the sensory deprivation on the plane heightening it," he explains.

After a flight, he might notice the sound of chrome or even wood more. Each object he considers has its own tone. He believes even gravity has a corresponding sonic quality.

The graduate of the Lisa Maile School of Acting, Modeling and Imaging is long-time friends with fellow synesthete Stevie Wonder and has a project in mind where they match Mr. Wonder's inner colors (though blind, he sees them synesthetically in his mind's eye) with sounds played on a keyboard. Audiences are in fact blind to what Mr. Wonder can see—and this way they could share the experience with him, he says. He says that Sir Elton John also experiences synesthesia and it would be wonderful to collaborate and bring back the days of the lighted color organs of 100 years ago on the stage together. He would also like to catalog his own sounds, beyond the couple of apps he's already created using his talent for sound.

Though Winslow embraces technology, he prefers the days of vinyl, he says. "Vinyl was warm. Digital sound is cold and must add things to get that level of warmth."

The Australian documentary maker Felicity Blake intends to make a film about synesthesia including Winslow. She first became interested in the topic as a school girl. When she wrote an essay about the rare neurological trait she was at first given a poor grade for making it up. She then proved to her teacher it was a true occurrence and received an "A."

Mr. Winslow will reprise his role in Vocapeople in New York City in October.

Here is a video of him doing a Led Zeppelin imitation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxcCC2g1Ke0

His website is www.michaelwinslow.net

 

Maureen Seaberg is an author and synesthete dedicated to advancing understanding of synesthesia.

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